The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) last night at Automatica 2018 honored the two winners of the 2018 Engelberger Robotics Awards. Known as the “Nobel Prize” of robotics, this year’s awards went to Gudrun Litzenberger, General Secretary of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), and Esben Østergaard, CTO and co-founder of Universal Robots. Read our Q&A with Østergaard here.
Since the award’s inception in 1977, it has been bestowed upon 126 robotics experts from 17 nations. However, Litzenberger becomes just the third woman to win the award. Bala Krishnamurthy, a pioneer in the field of electric and hydraulic industrial robots, was the first woman to win the award (2007), and MIT CSAIL director Daniela Rus won the award in 2017.
Litzenberger has compiled the IFR’s annual World Robotics Report since 2005. She assumed her current position in 2008. We caught up with Litzenberger before the awards ceremony and asked her about winning the award, women in robotics, trends to watch, and how the robotics industry can help countries overcome their fears about automation.
What does it mean to win the Engelberger Award?
I never expected it, but I’m so honored that I won this distinguished award. It’s the best thing of my career. Last year I won the Golden Finger Award from the China Robot Industry Alliance, which was also very touching, but the Engelberger Award is the pinnacle of my career.
Only three women have won the Engelberger Award. Does that make this even more important?
There are a lot more women who have deserved to win this award. There are more and more women in this business, which is good. But I’m thinking about our board, only men, I’m thinking about committees, only men. The robotics industry is still a man’s world.
How do we change that?
The women are coming. Last year [Rus] won the Engelberger Award. If you go through the exhibition [at Automatica], more and more women are engineers developing new products. When I first started in this business, there were no women, only the women on the IFR team. So the future is bright.
What impact has the IFR had on the robotics industry?
It’s very important to have valid data about the robotics market to prove the benefits of robots. This is necessary because we look at employment and robot population in countries and see a positive affect. The more robots that are installed, the better the economy and manufacturing industries are in those countries.
It’s the IFR’s task to create more statistics about the development of the robotics industry because the more people know, the less they fear robotics. We have a lot of work to do still against automation angst. In Asian countries, for example, they don’t fear robots. But in Europe and the United States there’s a great fear that robots steal jobs. But robots do not steal jobs.
How can the US overcome its robot fears?
We have to inform people that robots don’t take jobs, they take over tasks that are dull, dangerous, and dirty. The younger generation doesn’t want to do these factory jobs anymore. They want to have better jobs. Robots should do those factory jobs. But it’s a long-term process. A robot isn’t coming to your company tomorrow and stealing your job. A robot is coming to a company, helping the company, and the human worker takes over other jobs. He/she has to increase their skills and have more fun with work.
If you look at young people today, they grew up with digitalization, with mobile phones and other electronic devices. They are used to working with electronics, so they will have no problem working together with robots. They’ve worked with technical devices since they were born.
It is still necessary to provide information about what robots can really do. Robots aren’t terminators; robots are assistants to humans. Robots can make our life, at work and at home, much easier in the future.
What are some initial findings of the 2018 World Robotics Report?
There was a tremendous increase in 2017 driven by the automotive and electronics industry. And it was driven from the biggest market, China. The metal industry, the electrical/electronics industry were also strong. There aren’t too many robots in the food industry yet. It’s growing, but when compared to other markets, it’s not a big customer for robots.
[Editor’s Note: Industrial robot sales increase 29% worldwide, IFR reports]
When will automation for the automotive industry slow?
We have not seen [automotive] slowing down, especially in China. [China] is still strongly investing in the automation of car factories. The electric car will be developing more and more and this requires huge battery production. So I think the prospects are very good for automotive automation.
What is a market you see growing?
This goes for all markets, but the opportunity for small and medium-sized companies (SMEs). Usually, the big companies have no problem installing robots as they have enough engineers and skilled people. But if we have robots that are easier to use and step outside of their cages, all these SMEs will be able to install robots. Every robot company is building robots that are easier to implement, and this will increase adoption further as most companies worldwide are smaller in size.
What are your takeaways from Automatica?
The digitization of the factory is just starting. The ability for robots to learn from each other through AI and the cloud. If you have a factory in the US and China, the robots can communicate and improve their processes and production because they can share information via the cloud.
I haven’t had too much time to walk around yet. But if you look at Kassow Robots, a new Danish company, and if you look at Magazino, which is building the future of e-commerce, they’re showing robots that are easier to use and working together with humans outside the fences.
Robots will improve our lives in the factory, at work, and in our homes. We haven’t talked about medical robots, but exoskeletons can be used in the factory to support workers who have to manage heavy loads. But there also are medical exoskeletons. Comau, usually an industrial robot supplier, is showing an exoskeleton [at Automatica].
How did you get into robotics?
More than 30 years ago, I started working for the German Engineering Federation (VDMA) doing statistics in the precision tools department. My boss changed to the robotics and automation department, and he asked me to come with him to calculate the robotics statistics.
The funny thing was, I didn’t know what his intent was. Because, in former times, the global robotics statistics were produced by the United Nations Economic Committee for Europe (UNECE). One guy there produced the statistics, and he retired.
He looked for somebody to continue his work. He knew the VDMA could produce statistics, so at the end, I got the statistics. I like making statistics, and I like to communicate. It’s fantastic to travel around the world meeting people who are working together, debating topics, and moving the robotics industry forward.